Women who have taken birth control pills for three years or more have a 50 percent higher risk of developing glaucoma later in life, according to a new study presented at the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s annual meeting earlier this week.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve and can lead to permanent vision loss if left untreated. It is one of the most common causes of legal blindness in the world. Learn the signs of glaucoma in our Health Library.

Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine, the University of California San Francisco, and Third Affiliated Hospital of Nanchang University in China, studied more than 3,000 women 40 years of age and older who had used birth control pills for three consecutive years or more. The results of eye exams showed that these women had double the chance of developing glaucoma compared to women who had not taken birth control pills for that long.

The study’s researchers speculate that over time, birth control pills can lower estrogen, which has been found in earlier studies to be linked to glaucoma development among post menopausal women. At this time, the new study indicates an association, rather than a direct cause and effect relationship among the use of birth control pills and glaucoma.

Early detection of glaucoma can help prevent blindness. “It is a silent disease in its early stages and would only be detected by a screening exam,” said Dr. Natasha Herz, ophthalmologist at Washington Adventist Hospital. “It is important to get an ophthalmic exam every 5 to 10 years if you are under 40, and every year once you turn 50 to screen for glaucoma.”

Dr. Herz explains that if you are able to catch it early enough, glaucoma can be very treatable. Eye drops can be used to preserve the nerve tissue and prevent the eye disease from getting worse.

Help maintain your eye health by talking to your doctor. To find an ophthalmologist or eye specialist in your area, visit www.AdventistHealthCare.com/findadoc.